Writing Samples: What if I haven’t been published?

One of the biggest challenges in starting out as a freelance writer is getting your first article published. But to get published, you need show editors what you can do. How do you do that when you’ve never been published before?

I faced this problem when I first went freelance in April 2008 (feels like yesterday). I’d been working as a banker for over a year and held previous jobs in software testing, research and teaching. I decided to quit my job and give this writing-for-a-living malarky a go but was left with a dilemma: to get published, I’d need to demonstrate to editors that I can write. But how would I do that without samples of published work? The ultimate writer’s Catch-22!

My solution was to think a bit more broadly about “published work”. I ended up taking samples from teaching material, flyers and a few of my better blog posts and turning them into “writing samples” for my online writing portfolio. With the help of my portfolio (and a good pitch) I was able to land my first commission, an article on endorphins for The Daily Telegraph. After that, my arsenal of “published” writing samples only grew.

Just because you don’t have any published clips or writing samples doesn’t mean disaster – we all have to start somewhere. Here are a few tips for dealing with clips in the early stages of your career.

Think again

If you want to be a freelance writer, chances are you’ve already done some writing. Consider these possible sources for your writing clips:

  • Business reports
  • Technical manuals
  • Copywriting
  • Blog posts
  • Sales letters
  • Press releases
  • Newsletters

Write sample articles

Write a couple of articles in the genre you’d like to write for and be your own editor. Make sure these articles represent your best work and give them the same amount of attention you would to a paid article. Who knows, you might be able to sell them someday.

Publish online

Start a blog or offer to write guest posts on other people’s blogs. This is a great way to build up your portfolio and gain exposure to your work at the same time.

Go for small publications

Many small publications and local newspapers are more willing to take a chance on an unknown writer. You can also try pitching shorter pieces to magazines as fillers.

Query without clips

Don’t let a lack of clips keep you from pitching ideas. Simply write a great query and don’t mention clips at all. Instead, talk up other aspects of your experience that makes you right for the job. As always, play up your strengths and omit the weaknesses. Most importantly, keep writing!

Things you shouldn’t do

  • Write on spec. Some may disagree, but I think life is too short to work for free, so unless you’re writing about something you’d write about anyway because you just can’t help yourself, don’t spend the time until you’re sure you’re going to get paid. Professional writers get paid for their craft, and there’s monetary value in what you do.
  • Don’t acknowledge your lack of writing samples. All professional freelance writers have writing samples – that’s what you are, right?

In fact, that last point is the most important point of all: if you want people to take you seriously as a writer, YOU need to take yourself seriously as a writer. That means creating a presence that tells the world “hi, I’m a professional”. You don’t need a huge collection of published work to do this. You simply need a little creativity and confidence.

Position yourself as a professional writer in your pitches, online profiles and especially on your website, not only through your writing samples, but in the words you use to describe yourself on your home page and about page. Soon enough, you’ll have more writing samples than you can keep up with.

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8 Responses to “Writing Samples: What if I haven’t been published?”

  1. Stacia Carlton Says:

    Loved this article, and all of the links as well. I have one question and that is, how often can, or should, I pitch the same magazine?

  2. monica Says:

    Stacia, I’m so glad you find this useful. First off, yes you can definitely pitch the same magazine, but how often you should do so, well, that’s a bit fuzzier, but I’d say a safe bet is once every 2-4 weeks. And don’t forget to follow up on pitches if you haven’t heard back (I’d say follow up every week or so, for up to two weeks). It’s worth reading what actual editors have to say on the subject, for example, there’s a funny story from David Grim of ScienceNow about a freelancer who was pitching him multiple times PER DAY (avoid this 🙂


  3. Kirsty Stuart Says:

    You were right – our posts are similar! What is it they say about great minds…? 😉

    I particularly agree with starting your own blog. It can do wonders for improving your writing style, learning to be disciplined AND act as a living, breathing portfolio of work.

    Great post Monica – thanks!

  4. monica Says:

    Thanks for expanding on the merits of blogging, Kirsty. I totally agree! Great minds, indeed. 🙂

  5. Writer’s Residence Blog » Blog Archive » How I got my first writing gig Says:

    […] I had to get creative about what to put in my writing portfolio as I hadn’t really been published anywhere yet, and have written about this previously here: Writing samples: What if I haven’t been published? […]

  6. Olivia Says:

    Thanks for emphasising the importance of blogging.
    I’ve just had my first article published in a parenting magazine. I don’t have a blog but will definitely start one.
    The publisher of my article has not mentioned payment. As they know of my inexperience, and have agreed to give me more work, should I let this one go? I’m a final year English student and at this stage I’m just thrilled to have been published.

  7. monica Says:

    Thanks for your comment, Olivia, and congratulations on your first published article! I think your question drives home an important point: always ask about payment BEFORE you agree to write for a publication. It’s hard to say what you should do as I don’t know what sort of communication you’ve had with the publisher, but I think you should definitely ask about payment. This may be a moot point for the first article, but I would definitely ask for compensation for future articles.

    Nothing bad can come from asking for money; the worst they can do is say no. Then at least you can decide whether it’s worth you writing for them for free. And if you DO write for them for free, make sure you retain the rights to your work so that you can re-use and repurpose your articles for other publications (or even your own blog).

    Hope this helps but feel free to come back with more questions!


  8. Olivia Says:

    Thanks for getting back to me.
    The magazine will be out on september 1st and the editor wants a few ideas for articles for the winter issue. I’m worried about asking for payment because I’m so grateful she printed my article. I also heard that here in Ireland people are writing for free as here are no jobs due to the recession etc. I’ve seen ads for unpaid internships at magazines and they want graduates specialising in journalism.
    I think I’ll have to ask about payment, as uncomfortable as it makes me feel.
    We’ve just been in contact via email. I sent her an article which I wrote especially for her magazine, about my kids starting pre-school.
    Thanks so much for your advice